I-Team: New Squad Cracking Down on Crime on the Strip - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: New Squad Cracking Down on Crime on the Strip

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LAS VEGAS -- If you are like most Las Vegas locals, you probably don't stroll down the Strip on a Friday or Saturday night -- at least not very often. If you did, you would notice an amazing transformation that's unfolded over the past two years, and not in a good way.

The sidewalks have been overrun with hucksters, smut peddlers and criminal types who are a threat to an enjoyable experience for tourists and locals alike. The guys handing out fliers from escort services now number in the hundreds, and they compete for sidewalk space with costumed super heroes and other characters. But it's the other less obvious types who represent a threat, according to Las Vegas police.

Two months ago, Sheriff Doug Gillespie accepted a challenge from his officers and walked down the Strip in his civilian clothes. He was astonished by what has happened, so he formed a new team to deal with it. And they have their hands full.

"A month ago, I had a guy stab the tires on my police car in front of the Bellagio," said Metro Sgt. T.J. Jenkins.

Metro officers like Jenkins may not have seen it all, but they've seen a lot of it. The Las Vegas Strip, once sold as a family-friendly destination, has morphed into a rolling, rollicking booze-fueled carnival, like Mardi Gras, but every night.

"If you haven't been down here in the last five years, you'd be shocked how it's changed," said Sgt. Jenkins.

The proof is as close as YouTube, where videos are proudly posted of drunken fist-fights on the sidewalks, pranksters swimming in the Bellagio fountains, or seriously drugged-up malcontents going completely crazy.

"We push 'What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas,' so much that people think it's an adult playground and they can do whatever they want -- the cops are like the cops in the Hangover," said Metro Sgt. Mike Ford.

The transformation on the Strip is the result of more than just marketing. Where once people came to the street to visit casinos, now the action is on the sidewalk. Bars have built right to the edge of the Boulevard, which means drunks spill out all day and night.

The recession and lower room rates has attracted a less affluent visitor, and the perception is that people can get away with anything here.

"From 10 at night until six in the morning, it doesn't stop," said Sgt. Ford.

Sgt Ford runs a brand new Metro squad created in early October to take back control of the Strip. They target drug dealers, pimps, hookers, and gangsters. After each nightly briefing, team members head out into the fray and there is no such thing as a dull moment.

In the first five minutes on shift with Officers Bo Dennett and Angelo Colucci, they detected a motorist smoking marijuana. Once on the pavement, they checked an underaged trio for ID's and gang tattoos. As they finished with the youngsters, they heard a ruckus in the road and saw three men hassling a rolling billboard.

Two of the three had lengthy police records and one had an outstanding warrant. They were taken to a staging area where six other suspects were already in custody awaiting transport to the jail -- two of them with warrants of their own and most under the influence of something.

As a crowd watched the show, a man collapsed on the sidewalk and his wife wasn't happy about being caught on camera.

Dennett and Colucci left to look for a suspect who had stabbed someone during a robbery attempt at the Tropicana, and then were called to the Imperial Palace where someone was threatening to jump from the 16th floor balcony. Then it was back to the sidewalk outside Rock House where an unruly crowd had gathered. Five more people were arrested on various charges.

Dennett and Colucci then focused on a section near Planet Hollywood known as a hangout for drug dealers and gang members. Everyone they stopped to speak with had an arrest record or warrant or gang affiliation. Two looky-loos who pulled over to watch one arrest were themselves busted for marijuana, and they topped off their shift with a DUI in front of the Riviera.

Busting people for smaller crimes prevents bigger problems later in the night, Metro believes. And the problems do get big. The influx of gangsters with weapons has led to frequent gunplay.

"I've worked the Strip for four shootings, I think. So you know they're up here," said Officer Dennett.

Although the incidents rarely hit the news, some of these violent outbursts are incredibly dangerous, such as a drive by gun battle earlier this month right in the heart of the Strip.

"Forty rounds were exchanged between rival gang members. There's guns up here," said Dennett.

In just three weeks since the new squad began concentrating on the Strip, they have already seen a drop in the number of late night fights, and it looks like some of the street scufflers have moved on to other places.

But there is another challenge far more serious -- the threat of terrorism. Detectives say the terrorists have been here looking for weaknesses, and it looks like they've found one. Friday night, we'll tell you about this threat and how Metro is scrambling to deter the bad guys from trying something truly horrendous.

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